EMCC European Monitoring Centre on Change

Union Learning Fund (ULF)

United Kingdom
Phase: Anticipation
  • Territorial coordination
  • Training
Last modified: 04 October, 2018
Native name:

Union Learning Fund (ULF)

English name:

Union Learning Fund (ULF)


The Union Learning Fund (ULF) is managed and administered by unionlearn, the UK TUC’s (Trade Union Centre) Learning and Skills Organisation, under an agreement with the UK Department for Education (DfE). The ULF covers England, Scotland and Wales (i.e. Great Britain) and directs the level and type of learning activity that should be supported by the Fund. The purpose of the ULF is to support unions in encouraging workers' learning. This learning must not substitute for training which should be provided by employers. It is intended as an additional resource. 

Main characteristics

The ULF intends to bring together unions, employers and educational provision to improve the capabilities of the British workforce. Unionlearn helps to support unions to become effective learning organisations that can broker opportunities for their members. Moreover, it intends to effectively engage with employers, to create and facilitate learning programmes which tackle both organisational and individual needs. The ULF works with the Association of Colleges, the Association of Employment and Learning providers, City and Guilds and many others to ensure that relevant education and training is provided. The first ULF was established in 1998 and successive governments in the UK have continued to finance projects through a series of funding rounds, which were initially annual. Funding is provided by government to unions, with supportive funding sought from employers as part of project bids. Within the UK, monies have been apportioned to projects via the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in England, the Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF) in Wales and the Scottish Union Learning Fund (SULF) in Scotland – with ‘ULF’ a generic term. Unions’ strategic activity around learning is now organised in England through unionlearn, in Wales through Wales TUC Learning Services and in Scotland through Scottish Union Learning. A similar, yet separate fund is in place in Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Union Learning Fund).


  • National funds
  • Trade union

Involved actors

National government
Employer or employee organisations
Trade unions in England, Scotland and Wales (separate yet similar scheme in Northern Ireland).
Has mobilised participation and partnerships with higher education providers (Open University) and skills agencies in the UK.


There is no UK-wide reporting system of ULF outputs and activities. The most recent evaluation is for the 2015-2016 rounds conducted by the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the Leeds University Business School, in collaboration with the Marchmont Observatory at the University of Exeter. 

The evaluation noted the following findings:

  • Across the 2 rounds (2015-2016) over £45 million (€50 million - 6 July 2018) was allocated to 41 unions and staff associations running 78 projects, and this resulted in 533,000 'learning episodes'; 
  • ULF continues to support a range of activities though the emphasis now is more on functional skills (especially maths), vocational skills and apprenticeships, which is in line with government priorities; 
  • Funding was reduced from around £20 million (about €22.5 million) in 2012/2013 to £14 million in 2015/2016. The reduction in funding resulted in a scaling back of activities.


A key strength of ULFs is that they meet a demand. Research has revealed a large, latent demand for workplace-driven learning amongst the workforce generally and with over half of workers indicating that their likelihood of undertaking this learning was increased if organised through a union. Indeed, unions can provide assurance for vulnerable employees in revealing any skills deficits or learning difficulties. With multiple funding, learning escalators can be created for employees. Moreover, the vast majority of workplace projects are open to all employees, not just union members. In addition to helping to improve management-union relations, ULFs have gained employer support and put learning on the bargaining agenda between employers and unions, company policies on learning improve and employers benefit from workforce upskilling. Union-led workplace learning can thus offer mutual gains to unions, employers and all employees. It has also helped deliver government policy in the UK aimed at boosting learning capacity, and skill and qualification acquisition of the workforce.


Across the UK, the different ULFs are fragmented by country, with operational variations and no common reporting system of outputs and activities. Operationally, there is time pressure on ULRs to promote and deliver learning opportunities in workplaces and employers are not always willing to grant employees paid time-off to learn. Moreover, there are variations in the extent to which learning has become formalised within union operations and structures, and a debate within unions about the purpose of learning: as a service in itself, enhancing the employability (and non-working lives) of members or a means to another end – increasing rates of unionisation. These operational challenges often relate to the level of employer support. Whilst often negotiated in workplaces between unions and management, union-led workplace learning is not an embedded bargaining issue between employers and unions. In this respect, the key weakness of union-led workplace learning through the ULF however is its sustainability. Despite 15 years of operation and its presence in many UK workplaces, it remains dependent upon support from whichever government is in power and there have been reductions in available funding since 2015-2016.


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